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Almost, Maine

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It's probably important to say that from curtain up, the chances of me really enjoying Almost, Maine, by John Cariani weren't too good. This play, receiving its local premiere at Little Lake Theatre, is about my two least favorite things: love and cold weather. I guess it's fine for those of you who like that sort of thing, but really -- I hate being in the middle of either.

Not so Mr. Cariani, for whom the phrase "loves being in love" was probably invented. This play is an evening of nine short scenes about people falling, often to their own astonishment, in love. It's set in a small town called Almost, Maine, with all scenes taking place at various locations on the same Friday night, at 9 p.m. Cariani tells a very gentle tale about generally emotionally scarred people going on about their quietly forlorn lives when suddenly love (and occasionally lust) shows up, and the next thing you know everybody's all making goo-goo eyes at each other.

Usually the characters are either in, or just ending, a bad relationship, and in their brief, black-out scenes they find a new mate. My gripe is that Cariani never lets us see how their previous romances began, so we've no reason to believe that these new ones will be any better. But, I guess, hope springs eternal and all that ... and I'm sure all that cold weather actually encourages coupling.

Still, it would be unfair to find fault with a play as good-natured as this. Cariani's characters all possess hearts as big as the outdoors in which they live, and he's theatrically smart enough to inject sufficient bittersweet notes to vary the play's emotional schematic and break up what could have been an exercise in monotony. Neither does he stay rooted in a kitchen-sink realism -- all the skits possess elements of either magic or heightened lyricism, which keeps the evening refreshingly off-kilter.

Sunny Disney Fitchett directs with the exact sense of honesty and integrity the pieces require. Nobody's winking at the audience, and the whole cast approaches the work with dead-on sincerity. Nathan Bell, Jena Oberg, Kathi Finch, Phil Powell, Sara Barbisch and Scott Vandemark play a total of 19 roles with suppleness and humor.

With the world in such a crummy state right now, I suppose you could do worse than watch big-hearted people find comfort in each other -- though if you ask me, they'd be better off just moving someplace warmer.

Almost, Maine continues through Oct. 13. Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Drive South (off Route 19), Canonsburg. 724-745-6300.

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